by ELEANOR MORROW
dir. William Oldroyd
Is there ever a decently plausible explanation for doing something evil? Every single immoral act that Katherine (Florence Pugh) commits during the short running time of Lady Macbeth has a justification that is very moral indeed. It is difficult to imagine Lady Macbeth as a sympathetic character, and yet giving the ostensible reasons for her behavior is the basic task of the not-so-surprising events of this film concerning what the West identifies as the Russian way of life.
It is a great time to begin understanding Russia, only not really, since it is the single least rewarding area of study left to the West. Privileged and humanist, Europe can never see their Eastern neighbors clearly, and from America this nation seems only a dark, abiding, inextinguishable, blurry flame. Katherine is married off to the son of a wealthy Russian landowner many years her senior. Her new husband Alexander (Paul Hilton) has no interest in her at all; later we learn he was in love with someone else. He never tells Katherine this, or much of anything, and this rejection on its most basic level is her first and most significant experience of profound disappointment.
Katherine has no one to commiserate with, least of all her black servant Anna (Naomi Ackie) who has been reduced by fear of her masters. Florence Pugh, after only a tantalizing few roles onscreen, has already addressed herself as one of the most appealing British actresses working today. The point she is making in Lady Macbeth is that she is just as fearless as her character, and her various bouts in the nude as well as extensive lovemaking sequences demonstrate this fact. Her blend of androgyny and raw sexual angst is more than a novelty.
Only there is nothing much erotic about Lady Macbeth. With her husband away, Katherine quickly begins a complex relationship with a snotty servant named Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). When her father-in-law discovers the infidelity, he does nothing to Katherine except a slap, informing her that he cannot even look at her. There is the constant suggestion of the past that lies between the characters, but playwright Alice Burch leaves so much to our imagination that at times it seems a shame that there is so little space in the diegesis to ponder Lady Macbeth‘s tight mysteries.
Her father-in-law Boris (the wild-looking Christopher Fairbank) refuses to release her lover from confinement, so Katherine poisons him. Anna is driven mute by this act of violence – someone she thought helpless has murdered the most important person in her world, and she never does come to terms with that. After she gains her freedom, Katherine arranges her life in as pleasant a fashion as she can imagine; only she cannot picture much in the way of happiness, since her experiences so far in life have been unpleasant. Katherine is alone as the lady of the house for only moments.
The estate itself is rarely depicted, and we acquire no greater sense of the hierarchy or rules at play in Katherine’s world. A bizarre, creepy egalitarianism pervades the manor, and this lack of order is no more evident than when Katherine finds a few of the grooms torturing Anna in the stables for their amusement. Instead of identifying their crime, which she is unable to manage because she no longer has a working concept of right and wrong, she scolds them for wasting her husband’s money and time.
Directer William Oldroyd lingers on the faces of his performers at great length, attempting to give a sense of the drama merely through reaction shots. Pugh herself has a terrifically expressive face that suits this choice, but the other actors in Lady Macbeth offer very little in contrast to her oversized presence. It is damn near impossible to keep up. As an allegory, this concept of self-determination seems a valuable one. It is only important for a person without state or property to be something, Birch seems to be explaining in this adaptation of the 1865 Nikolai Leskov novella, and what the thing is remains less important than that it is. Presenting this as a cultural difference is spin city, but you have to admire the effort.
During Oliver Stone’s embarrassing, fawning hagiography of Vladimir Putin, we learned that nothing has changed when it comes to our considerable ignorance of any other continent. Lady Macbeth is more along the lines of Stone’s blind searching for equivalence than careful analysis of history, but Pugh saves the entire attempt with the furtive wildness in her eyes and laugh. It is always a thrill to see someone with enough good sense to set themselves free.
Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording.